The Changeling – Act One, Scenes 1-2: “There’s scarce a thing but is both lov’d and loath’d”

Scene One: Alsemero, a visitor to Alligant, has encountered Beatrice-Joanna in the temple. He decides to change his travel plans to stay and woo her, not knowing she is already betrothed to Alonzo. Alsemero’s companion, Jasperino, is surprised by his friend’s lovesick behavior but decides to pursue Beatrice-Joanna’s maid, Diaphanta. Alsemero learns of Beatrice-Joanna’s engagement but does not leave Alligant. Beatrice-Joanna is having second thoughts about her betrothal to Alonzo since meeting Alsemero. She explains to Alsemero that she finds her father’s servingman, DeFlores, repulsive.

Alsemero enters in a reverie, comparing his glimpses of Beatrice-Joanna to things sacred and holy. Both times she was in the temple, leading him to conclude that this “…admits comparison / With man’s first creation, the place blest” (1.1.7-8). Where an allusion to the Garden of Eden might also suggest the Fall of Man and its connection to sin and death, Alsemero uses it to describe pairing with
Beatrice-Joanna as “perfection” (1.1.11). His thoughts quickly move to holding their marriage ceremony in the temple, which would signify both “beginning and perfection too” (12). Starting the play with musings on perfection and holiness introduces its exploration of appearances and seeming, themes important to the plot. Can first impressions and external appearances be considered legitimate indications of character?

Jasperino arrives to let Alsemero know the seas are favorable for their departure but is surprised when his friend resists leaving. Jasperino praises the wind as “fair” for a “swift and pleasant passage” (13, 14) but Alsemero disagrees, saying, “I know ‘tis against me” (21). Jasperino is confused by his friend’s reticence, as in the past he has been a keen traveler. He asks if Alsemero is unwell, since “Lover I’m sure y’are none, the stoic / Was found in you long ago” (36-37). The ship’s crew is told they will not be setting out today; sensing Alsemero’s lovesickness, one seaman quips in an aside “We must not to sea today; this smoke will bring forth fire” (50-51). This throw-away remark anticipates the events of the final act.

Beatrice-Joanna and Diaphanta arrive and Alsemero’s manner further astonishes Jasperino: “Salute a woman? He kisses too: wonderful! Where learnt he this?” (58). An hint of things to come that might be overlooked is Beatrice-Joanna’s query to Alsemero: “Which of the sciences is this love you speak of?” (63). Alsemero’s interest in science or medicine becomes important later in the play, and this quick mention is its introduction and only mention. He then takes the opportunity to profess his love to Beatrice-Joanna, whose response is unexpected:

Be better advis’d sir:
Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgements
And should give certain judgement what they see;
But they are rash sometimes, and tell us wonders
Of common things, which when our judgements find,
They can then check the eyes, and call them blind. (69-74)

Her reply seems to warn Alsemero from his attraction to her. It also advises against making judgements based on appearance alone, an admonishment that aligns with the play’s motif of sight and seeing. Is her warning due to her engagement to Alonzo, or does she sense a darkness within that could prove ruinous? Again, the lines hint at things to come.

Soon after Beatrice-Joanna’s reply, Deflores makes his first appearance. This is surely by design, since Deflores’ looks and what is or is not wrong with his face are important aspects of the character. He announces that her father has arrived, but Beatrice-Joanna demands to know why he felt it necessary to come tell her. In an aside, Deflores explains he is drawn to Beatrice-Joanna even though she abhors him:

…Must I be enjoin’d
To follow still whilst she flies from me? Well,
Fates do your worst, I’ll please myself with sight
Of her, at all opportunities… (98-101)

In her book Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage, Mary Floyd-Wilson includes a chapter considering The Changeling in light of ‘sympathies and antipathies.’ To put it succinctly, Dr. Floyd-Wilson describes how early modern medicine and science believed certain materials and essences were drawn to each other. A ‘sympathy’ meant a strong attraction to some property the other possessed. ‘Antipathy’ was the opposite, meaning some things were by nature opposed. In The Changeling, for instance, sympathy would mean Beatrice-Joanna is subconsciously drawn to something inherent in Deflores’ nature despite feeling physical revulsion. Similarly, although Deflores is physically attracted to Beatrice-Joanna, without sympathy he might not be willing to endure her scorn and verbal abuse. Sympathies and antipathies go a long way to explain why Middleton might have taken such care to point out Deflores’ facial defect. Since he is portrayed as being scarred or disfigured, physical attraction can be ruled out as the basis for Beatrice-Joanna’s actions later in the play.  His being unattractive rather gives the audience pause; is she being coerced, or has she discovered something in his nature drawing her to him?    

Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero touch on the concept of sympathies and antipathies in the next few lines. She tells him she is repulsed by Deflores, calls it “my infirmity” (106), but cannot explain the feeling. Alsemero replies that everyone has something they cannot tolerate and that “There’s scarce a thing but is both lov’d and loath’d / Myself (I must confess) have the same frailty” (122-23). His particular aversion, he tells her, is something she personally may like: “a cherry” (125).  While it is tempting to associate his remark with our modern slang reference to virginity (which would align nicely), the Oxford English Dictionary shows the earliest use of that meaning to be the late 19th century. Alsemero, then, is simply not a lover of fruit.  

Meanwhile, Jasperino and Diaphanta are engaging in flirty, bawdy conversation. In some ways, theirs is the healthiest relationship in the play. There seems to be no deception between them, and no hints of manipulation, possessiveness, or jealousy. They both seem to have no expectations other than enjoying each other’s company. Consequently, their relationship sets off the very different ones between Alsemero and Beatrice-Joanna, Deflores and Beatrice-Joanna, and Alibius and Isabella. Jasperino and Diaphanta’s relationship is also important to the plot.

Vermandero arrives and welcomes Alsemero, whose late father he knew in younger years. At Beatrice-Joanna’s behest, he invites Alsemero on a tour of his castle; he also urges him to stay for her wedding. Alsemero is shaken by Beatrice-Joanna’s impending wedding, and in an aside laments, “I must now part, and never meet again / With any joy on earth” (194-195). He then insists he cannot stay, even to see the castle. Vermandero, unaware of Alsemero’s love for his daughter, brushes this off as mere civility and begins to praise the virtues of his future son-in-law. Alsemero observes:

ALSEMERO: He’s much
Bound to you, sir.
VERMANDERO: He shall be bound to me,
As fast as this tie can hold him; I’ll want
My will else.
BEATRICE [Aside]: I shall want mine if you do it.
VERMANDERO: But come, by the way I’ll tell you more of him.
ALSEMERO [Aside]: How shall I dare to venture in his castle,
When he discharges murderers at the gate? (213-219)

Much is packed into this short exchange. Alsemero notes that Alonzo has much to thank Vermandero for (“much bound to you”), to which Vermandero replies that he shall be “bound to [him]” (linked, connected) “[a]s fast as this tie can hold him” (as tightly as his marriage to Beatrice-Joanna can contract him). Vermandero will “want [his] will” (lack having his way) otherwise. To this, Beatrice-Joanna remarks in an aside that she “shall want [hers] if you do it” (lack having her own way if Vermandero binds Alonzo to her in marriage). Alsemero’s aside about “discharging murderers at the gate” not only reflects his emotional wounding in hearing of Beatrice-Joanna’s engagement, but also points to the action in Act Three.

As Beatrice-Joanna turns to leave, she drops her glove. If purposeful, this action is both invitation and challenge to a potential lover. It recalls Bel-Imperia’s dropping of her own glove in Thomas Kyd’s earlier The Spanish Tragedy. In their essay, “Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe” (available with a free JSTOR account), Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones discuss the meaning of gloves and the actions associated with them. A glove, at times perfumed, would be associated intimately with the hand of the beloved. It was a token that could be worn, cherished, or kissed by a devout lover. If this was Beatrice-Joanna’s intent, however, her move backfires. Her father sees the glove and calls for Deflores to pick it up and return it. Does Vermandero sense her possible flirtation?

Beatrice-Joanna is horrified. She refuses the glove and scorns Deflores’ attempt at service: “Mischief on your officious forwardness! / Who bade you stoop? They touch my hand no more: / There, for tother’s sake I part with this,” / [Takes off the other glove and throws it down.] (223-225, sd. 225). Deflores, however, cannot believe his luck:

Here’s a favour come, with a mischief! Now I know
She had rather wear my pelt tann’d in a pair
Of dancing pumps, than I should thrust my fingers
Into her sockets here; I know she hates me,
Yet cannot choose but love her:
No matter, if but to vex her, I’ll haunt her still;
Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will. (227-233)

Alone on the stage after Beatrice-Joanna has stormed off, Deflores expresses his sexual attraction to her as well as his refusal to stay away. The phrase “thrust my fingers / Into her sockets here” is blatantly erotic, and in some productions made obviously so. He also declares he cannot help being drawn to her, an inversion of Beatrice-Joanna’s professed aversion: his sympathy to her antipathy. Deflores plans to continue being in her presence regardless of how she feels about it, because if he gets “nothing else” (materially/psychologically/ sexually), he’ll “have [his] will.” This not only echoes the previous exchange between Vermandero, Beatrice-Joanna, and Alsemero, but also gives a glimpse into Deflores’ character. No matter how Beatrice-Joanna feels about seeing him, he will do as he pleases for his own gratification. In modern terms, Deflores might be called a stalker.


Scene Two: Alibius, an older physician in charge of the local asylum, fears his young wife Isabella will be unfaithful. He confides this to his man, Lollio, who agrees to keep an eye on her. Pedro arrives with Antonio/Tony, claiming Tony is his mad cousin and asking he be admitted for care. Lollio quizzes Antonio to get a feel for his wit, deems him a “scholar,” and escorts him into the ward.

Alibius is riddled with jealousy and fears his younger, beautiful wife Isabella is not content in their marriage. Lollio remarks that young plants are protected by older trees, but Alibius is not convinced. He responds, “I would wear my ring on my own finger; / Whilst it is borrowed it is none of mine, / But his that useth it” (27-29). Alibius’ concern about wearing his “ring” (early modern slang for vagina) ushers in other bawdy jokes and quips about sex and the female anatomy: “if it but lie by, one or other will be thrusting into’t” (30-31), “Thou conceiv’st me” (32), “you must look out, ‘tis every man’s case” (36, ‘case’ being another slang term for vagina), and “Supply my place” (39, in the sexual act).

This exchange is the first of many references to and jokes about cuckoldry in the asylum scenes. Cuckoldry, or wives cheating on husbands, would have resonated with Middleton’s audience and been a sure laugh. It appears or is mentioned in most of the plays of the period and serves as the foundation for many a poke at jealous, older, or hen-pecked husbands. Scholars such as Cristina León Alfar and Sara F. Matthews-Grieco have written books on the topic, and a quick Google search uncovers numerous other papers, dissertations, and theses on cuckoldry and early modern society.

Alibius’ concern is “The daily visitants that come to see / My brainsick patients” (50-1). As stated in my introductory post for this series, going to asylums to get a glimpse of the mentally ill was indeed a pastime in the early modern period. Alibius is anxious that “gallants… / Of quick enticing eyes, rich in habits, / Of stature and proportion very comely” (53-55) might be “most shrewd temptations” (56) for Isabella. He instructs Lollio to ensure these visitors do not see her, then remembers a new patient should be arriving that day. On cue, Pedro and Antonio enter, leading Alibius to state “I think my expectation is come home” (78). This is an apt choice of phrase, since Antonio is smitten with Isabella and pretending madness to gain admittance to the asylum. Hence, the expectation of a new client has been fulfilled and (unbeknownst to Alibius) he happens to be a gallant trying to get close to Isabella. 

Pedro introduces Antonio as “Tony” and asks that he receive the best care, emphasizing that “He is a gentleman” (108). Before leaving, he pays Alibius and gives Lollio a little on the side, since he is to “keep [Tony] sweet and read to him” (91). Lollio quizzes Tony with several riddles and puns to ascertain his wit, a lengthy bit of business meant to provide laughs for the audience. He approves of Tony’s abilities, and as the scene closes, all exit to their various “charge[s]” (189). For Alibius, this means the patients’ ward; for Lollio, it means feeding the patients, getting Tony settled, and keeping tabs on Isabella.

The asylum subplot scenes can be difficult, and audiences may wonder why Middleton felt the need to include them. The obvious reason is that the main plot can be intense with few comedic elements, so the asylum scenes serve as a break. They contain quite a bit of humor, albeit often at the expense of the asylum patients (and therefore likely distasteful to modern audiences). Another reason is that these scenes address similar issues as the main plot and show them in another light. Themes of infidelity, the madness of love/passion, mistrust in relationships, and (to use that anachronistic term once more) stalking are present.

The characters in the asylum scenes also offer a form of oblique commentary on those of the main plot. Isabella, for instance, can be seen as an alternate Beatrice-Joanna. A strong female character with her own mind and a desire for agency, Isabella asserts her choice, station, and identity in a very different fashion than Beatrice-Joanna. Is Lollio Isabella’s Deflores? Antonio and Franciscus her Alsemero and Alonso? This is left for the audience to decide.